Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize 2012

The winners of Germany's most prestigious research prize have been officially announced. At its meeting in Bonn today, the Joint Committee of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) named eleven researchers, two women and nine men, as the winners of the 2012 Leibniz Prize. The award winners were selected by the Nominations Committee from among 131 nominees, and will each receive € 2.5 million in prize money. Of the eleven Leibniz Prizes awarded this year, five were awarded in the life sciences, three in the natural sciences, one in the engineering sciences, and two in the humanities and social sciences.

Prof. Dr. Michael Brecht, Neurophysiology/Cellular Neuroscience

The Leibniz Prize for Michael Brecht honours a scientist whose original research approaches and innovative methods have broken new ground in neurobiology. Brecht is particularly interested in the question of how neuronal activity triggers behaviour. He has arrived at foundational answers using the “in vivo whole-cell” method, developed by him, which allows precise measurements in freely moving animals. With it, Brecht has demonstrated that even the stimulation of one nerve cell can trigger motor behaviour. Brecht’s recordings of the sensory cortex have also shown that, under certain circumstances, even stimulated individual nerve cells can control perception and behaviour. Both investigations have refuted the common assumption that behaviour can only be triggered by the activity of many neurons. Brecht’s approach is based on methods that had previously been used in anaesthetised rodents, but he was among the first to apply them to awake, actively moving animals. Thus Brecht has enabled a much better understanding of neural information processing.

Michael Brecht’s career is closely linked to two of the world’s most prestigious German neuro- and cell biologists. After studying biochemistry and biology in Tübingen and a research visit in San Francisco, Brecht earned his doctorate under Wolf Singer in Frankfurt and his habilitation under Nobel laureate Bert Sakmann in Heidelberg. Since 2006 he is a professor at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience and at Humboldt University, both in Berlin.

Prof. Dr. Rainer Forst, Political Philosophy/Theory

Nationally and internationally, Rainer Forst is considered the most important German political philosopher of the “under 50” generation. As the Frankfurt-based scholar continues the German — and especially Frankfurtian — political philosophy of Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, and engages it critically with American representatives like John Rawls, he shapes his very own philosophy. It revolves mainly around the basic concepts of justice, tolerance and justification. In a highly original fashion, Forst has contemplated and formulated the insight that humans have always been embedded in various “practices of justification”. These require that ultimately all actions must be legitimised according to particular logics of morality, law and other discourses. Our practical reasoning is simply the ability to recognise and accept these logics — such is Forst’s far-reaching conclusion as a political philosopher.

A strong international orientation, with a particular interest in the United States, was seen early on in Rainer Forst. After studying in Frankfurt, New York/Binghamton, and Harvard, he was a lecturer and visiting professor in Berlin, Frankfurt and New York. Following stints in Frankfurt and Gießen, he became a professor at the University of Frankfurt in 2004; despite several offers from renowned universities in other countries, Forst has remained faithful to it.

Prof. Dr. Gunther Hartmann, Clinical Pharmacology/Innate Immunity and Prof. Dr. Christian Kurts, Immunology/Nephrology

Gunther Hartmann and Christian Kurts will share the Leibniz Prize in recognition of their seminal discoveries concerning the mode of action of the body’s endogenous defence systems. They do their excellent work at the same location, the University Hospital in Bonn, but at different departments and independently of each other. Clinical pharmacologist Hartmann has critically improved the understanding of nucleic acid detection by the immune system, especially with his research into the effect of CpG oligonucleotides on the highly important dendritic cells, and into short-interfering RNAs. These investigations are important for understanding the defence against viruses and the development of a rapid immune response against invading pathogens. Hartmann’s findings can also be used for the development of new vaccines and pharmacologically active substances for the inhibition of genes. The foundation for Gunther Hartmann’s work, which has already been recognised with several national and international awards, was laid with a DFG-funded postdoctoral fellowship in Iowa, United States. From there Hartmann moved on to Munich and then to Bonn, where he has led the Institute of Clinical Chemistry and Pharmacology since 2007.

Christian Kurts is also particularly interested in elucidating the function of dendritic cells. The research topics of this immunologist and specialist in internal medicine, however, are extremely broad and interdisciplinary. They range from the cross-presentation of antigens, to the interaction of various immune-system cells to build an immune response and the pathogenesis of inflammation, to the development of intestinal paralysis after abdominal surgery and of special forms of nephritis. A key motivation behind Kurth’s research is always the indirect application of findings in a therapy setting. Several of his works have refuted what used to be universally accepted assumptions in immunology. Christian Kurts was a Heisenberg fellow of the DFG, which also funded his two-year research stay in Australia. In Bonn since 2003, Kurt is now director of the Institute of Experimental Immunology. Outstanding both as a researcher and a clinician, he also exerts a great attraction as an academic teacher on clinically oriented young scientists.

Prof. Dr. Matthias Mann, Biochemistry

Without Matthias Mann’s work that is now being honoured with the Leibniz Prize, modern biology would basically be impossible. An exceptionally resourceful and successful developer and user of methods, this biochemist has shaped large-scale proteomics and thus the detection of all proteins in biological systems. His greatest achievement is the application of a mass spectrometry technique, originally used in physics, to problems of molecular biology, which he pursued in various ways. His early contributions to the development of electrospray ionisation paved the way for biological mass spectrometry in general. Just as important are the software algorithms developed by Mann that enable the analysis of mass spectrometry data using sequence databases. These and other approaches, such as the SILAC method for the direct comparison of thousands of proteins, are now used in laboratories worldwide. Working with renowned research teams, Mann has also used these techniques himself: In 2008, for example, he was able to perform the first complete proteome analysis of an organism using baker’s yeast as a model. His next big goal, which is within close reach, is the complete map of the proteome of human cells.

After Matthias Mann’s study of physics in Göttingen, each station in his scientific career has involved the development and use of pioneering methods, from his doctoral training at Yale, United States, to his postdoctoral research in Odense, Denmark, to his work as a group leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg and his leadership of the Center for Experimental Bioinformatics at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. Since 2005 he has continued his work as a director at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, opening up ever new perspectives on the understanding of biological systems.

Prof. Dr. Friederike Pannewick, Arabic Studies/Literature, Theatre, History of Ideas

The Leibniz Prize for Friederike Pannewick is the first ever for Arabic studies. It honours a scholar who has been instrumental in advancing in Germany the interdisciplinary reorientation of her subject area and of Middle Eastern studies in general. In numerous research projects and publications in German, Arabic and English, Pannewick has examined key themes of contemporary Arabic literature and intellectual history. These include the literary treatment of civil war experiences, ideas of death, and rebellion models, whose sometimes distant historic roots in religious, political and cultural traditions Pannewick has illuminated as much as their transformation into contemporary contexts. She has repeatedly demonstrated her special ability to identify early on — and sometimes even ahead of time — significant scholarly and cultural topics and issues in the Middle East. For example, her research on the literary conceptualisation of martyrdom has made it easier to understand the current political development in Arab countries, and her working group “From Revolution to Subversion” began to analyse the underpinnings of the “Arabellion” before it even broke out.

After pursuing Oriental, Arabic and Turkish studies in Bamberg, Paris, Berlin and Damascus, Friederike Pannewick’s thesis at the Free University of Berlin was published as a book. This was followed by work as a research associate and postdoc in Berlin and several research visits in Lebanon. Since 2007 Pannewick has been professor of modern Arabic literature at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at the University of Marburg.

Prof. Dr. Nikolaus Rajewsky, Systems Biology

Nikolaus Rajewsky has set new standards in systems biology and enriched the life sciences as a whole. With great creativity and productivity, his work combines physics and mathematics with systems biology, which examines the regulatory processes in whole cells or organisms across the genome or proteome. Of particular importance is Rajewsky’s work on microRNAs, small non-coding RNAs that play a key role in controlling cellular processes, but also in the development of cancer and other diseases. A computer program developed under Rajewsky’s guidance made it possible for the first time to identify the target genes of microRNAs. Using another technology, the strength of the effect of microRNA regulation on protein synthesis could be described. With the antagomirs he helped develop, Rajewsky was able to shut down the activities of microRNAs specifically and reliably. This is also a starting point for the development of novel drugs.

With a background in mathematics and physics, Nicholas Rajewsky, following his doctorate in theoretical physics in Cologne and postdoctoral periods in New Jersey and at Rockefeller University, New York, turned to systems biology. After an assistant professorship at New York University, he returned to Germany in 2006. He is now professor at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in Berlin, and coordinator of the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology (BISMB), which became very successful within a short time.

Prof. Dr. Ulf Riebesell, Oceanography

Ulf Riebesell receives the Leibniz Prize for his research on ocean change, one of the farthest-reaching corollaries and consequences of human-induced climate change. This marine scientist from Kiel was one of the first researchers to examine the influence of acidification and ocean warming on marine organisms and ecosystems. He focused especially on plankton and other calcareous and calcifying organisms in the ocean. In his experimental work — initially in the laboratory and later with free-drifting mesocosms in the Baltic Sea, Norwegian fjords and the Arctic — Riebesell was able to show how increased uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere reduces the pH value in oceans and the ability of calcareous organisms to produce shells. Because these organisms are often at the beginning of the food chain, this may have a material impact on the entire food chain and production in the ocean. With his work, Riebesell has made not only marine scientists but also the general public aware of ocean acidification as one of the most acute threats to marine ecosystems.

Following the study of biology and biological oceanography at Kiel, Ulf Riebesell continued his scientific education on the West and East Coasts of the United States. After receiving his doctorate in Bremen, he conducted research at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven and in Santa Barbara, California, before he took over in 2003 as head of the Department of Biological Oceanography at IFM-GEOMAR in Kiel, which also entails a professorship at Kiel University.

Prof. Dr. Peter Sanders, Theoretical Informatics/Algorithmics

In Peter Sanders, an internationally highly recognised researcher in algorithmics is being honoured with the Leibniz Prize. The Karlsruhe computer scientist is best known as a key figure in algorithm engineering. Going far beyond the design of efficient algorithms as a core discipline of informatics, algorithm engineering combines design, analysis, implementation and experimental evaluation into one holistic task. Especially spectacular are Sanders’ findings on route planning in road networks, around which a veritable race has broken out between algorithm researchers since the digital publication of the US and European road networks. Sanders developed several heuristics, the best of which was tested on the Western European road network, with 18 million cities and 42 million connections between them, and found to be three million times faster than Dijkstra’s algorithm, the long-time standard for optimal routing in road networks. Other important works by Sanders deal with efficient access to external memory for extremely large data sets, for which he has developed a software library that is now used worldwide by academic and industrial users. Finally, his research on suffix arrays is essential for text analysis and compression as well as many applications in bioinformatics.

Peter Sanders’ career in informatics began with wins in two national competitions in Germany (Bundeswettbewerb Informatik; Jugend forscht). After studying computer science in the US and obtaining a PhD in informatics in Karlsruhe, he became in 2004 professor of theoretical informatics at the University of Karlsruhe, which under the Excellence Initiative merged with the Research Center Karlsruhe to become the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

Prof. Dr. Barbara Wohlmuth, Mathematics/Numerical Analysis

Barbara Wohlmuth is awarded the Leibniz Prize for her research achievements in numerical analysis, which enable direct applications in scientific and engineering computing. A focus of her research is the numerics of partial differential equations, to which she has made key contributions, especially with her theoretical study of mortar domain decomposition methods. With this work, and with its translation into practical techniques, she has achieved an internationally leading role in her field. Wohlmuth’s research demonstrates an extraordinarily deep theoretical understanding that also produces better computational methods, for example in solid and fluid mechanics. In short, this new Leibniz Prize winner has advanced basic research with elegance, efficiency, and an eye on practical applications.

Internationality has been the hallmark of Barbara Wohlmuth’s research career. After completing her pre-diploma in Grenoble, France, and earning her diploma and doctorate in Munich, she did research in New York. Following her DFG-funded habilitation in Augsburg and a first professorship in Stuttgart, she held visiting professorships in France and Hong Kong. Since 2010 Barbara Wohlmuth has been professor of numerical analysis at the University of Technology in Munich.

Prof. Dr. Jörg Wrachtrup, Experimental Physics

Jörg Wrachtrup has opened up a completely new and very successful area of research at the interface between solid-state physics and quantum optics. The foundation for this was laid with his pioneering work on the detection of single spins in solids. A milestone was especially the detection of individual paramagnetic nitrogen vacancies in diamond, called NV centres, which are characterised by exceptional photostability. Wrachtrup was the first scientist to recognise the importance of NV centres for quantum information technology and metrology. But his area of research, which he essentially established, radiates far beyond solid-state physics and quantum optics into the materials and life sciences. For example, the high photostability of NV centres was used to maximise the resolution of fluorescence microscopy. The development of fluorescent nanodiamonds for labelling biomolecules has likewise been made possible by NV centres. Wrachtrup’s work also laid the foundation for the production of diamond-based single-photon sources and a new class of diamond-based magnetic sensors.

Since 2000 Jörg Wrachtrup has led the 3rd Institute of Physics at the University of Stuttgart, which he joined following his studies and doctorate at the Free University of Berlin, a research stay at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Bordeaux, and five years as a research associate at Chemnitz University of Technology. For his research, Wrachtrup has already won several national and international recognitions, including an appointment as Max Planck Fellow and, just this year, an Advanced Grant of the European Research Council (ERC).